Update on US Timber Laws: Virginia Edition, Part 3: Crunching Numbers

By Elizabeth Baldwin

Last week, I talked with the “Victor” of a recent timber theft case in Virginia.  I asked V to crunch the numbers for this case.

Q.  So what did the lawsuit cost you?

A.  The suit resulted in over $400,000 in attorney fees, legal costs and other costs.  Broken down, that included:

  • $ 14,000 – survey costs (required by the law to be at my cost)
  • $   6,000 – costs to obtain timber stump value estimates
  • $217,000 – cash paid to attorneys
  • $163,000 – in legal bills still unpaid and outstanding and accumulated

In return, I was awarded $15,135 in damages.

That was nothing at all—it doesn’t even cover the professional fees for surveys and evaluations much less the timber value and replanting costs.  And we’ve already covered the fiasco with the legal costs in detail.

Q.  So you are out nearly a half million dollars on this?

A.  Oh, far more than that.  Remember, those numbers are just costs, out of pocket expenses.  Those numbers don’t consider the real loss or the practical costs.

Remember, in the suit, I was attempting to recover three things: 1) timber value, 2) clean up and reforestation costs, and 3) legal costs.  For that last one, I’ve been denied compensation for my legal costs and as well as having had some costs from the other side added to my own.  And no one ever even considered covering my other expenses such as conducting any of my legally required survey/valuations.   So I spent roughly a half million dollars to be told that yes, I was a victim of timber theft.

As for the other two:

1.  The Statute only allows $450 per acre for “reforestation costs”.  However a single 16” inch Red Oak seedling costs about $2 from the VA Forestry Department.  Two dollars doesn’t sound like much but I need to plant approximately 400 seedlings per acre, so even without labor, my costs are almost double what the statute provides for.  There is no allowance for maintenance (for example, against deer who will eat the seedlings, weed maintenance, and watering). And of course the value and pleasure of an acre of seedlings is very different from that of an acre of old growth timber.

Further, the Statute does not consider the costs of cleanup:  debris & stump removal / weed control.  I received quotes of $8,500 per acre for debris clean up.  $450 per acre versus $8,500 is a Big Difference.  I also received estimates of about $80,000 to put my forest back to its prior ecology (necessary as the cutting changes the forest and allows invasive plants which can totally destroy the remaining forest.)

2.  As for the timber stump value, I had three separate estimates in response to the first trespass in 2010.

The first estimate was approximately $1,336 by a forester consultant for “stump value”.  It included 3’3″ diameter old growth oaks, maybe 60 pines about 60 feet high, and other hardwoods.

A second estimate was from a local nursery, for planting the exact amount of trees and species, (although the highest they could plant was 6 foot trees).  There estimate was $15,000 to replant 6 foot trees in place of my 60 foot trees.

The third estimate, ironically, came from a forester hired by my neighbor who approached me with a $1,000 per acre offer for my trees.  (In the contract, clean-up was to be included, best management practices, and a contractual basis for damages.)  Interestingly, the neighbor claimed he only got $400 an acre.

By the way, no matter what price he really received, he got a bad deal too.  His land was clear cut and left a mess.  He did no reforestation and turned the place into a pig farm so the pigs could root out the stumps.  Six years later, the ground is torn up and an eye sore.  The land actually has a negative value given the fact that any buyer would have to do extensive clean up to convert it to any use.  By 2013, the estimates were for over $80,000 in damages to my forest and his must be worse.

The only winner here was the logger who got the trees.  Did you know the Virginia Tech guide to dealing with timber theft notes that “High-value hardwoods can sell for $1,000 or more for a single log?”  I wonder what the logger got for my old Oaks.

Q.   Since we’re talking numbers, do you want “sum” things up?

A.  The laws need to be revamped.  Timber theft is still THEFT, but way I see it, this law almost encourages theft.  The logger can steal timber confident that even if the victim pursues (unlikely) and wins a case, the damages are a hollow victory for the victim, and will still be less than the profit they made.

And of course this is all bad for the environment too—it is more profitable to take the wood and run, leaving the forest a mess, than it is to either selectively harvest, or clear cut and not replant properly.  Proper logging isn’t cheap, but if you’re stealing wood, you’re not too likely to care about the condition you leave your crime scene.

The only way to discourage timber theft is to remove the profit incentive.  The law needs to be realistic about the real costs and also make it easier for victims to seek justice.

Timber theft needs to be seen as the crime it really is—the crime against landowners and the land both.